Election 2020: 16th House District Primary
School board member Patti Bounds and County Commissioner Michele Carringer face off for the chance to succeed Rep. Bill Dunn.
by jesse fox mayshark • July 20, 2020
Patti bounds, left, and michele carringer are contending for the republican nomination.
This fall, voters in the 16th District of the state House of Representatives will do something they haven’t done since 1994: Elect a new legislator.
Running to succeed Bill Dunn are two Republicans with opposite views of one of his signature accomplishments.
State Rep. Bill Dunn has held the seat continuously for the past 26 years, rising to Speaker pro Tempore — the second-highest-ranking position in the House. He is the longest-serving Republican in the chamber, having won 13 straight two-year terms
When Dunn announced his retirement late last year, it set off a scramble among North Knox Republicans, with several names floated as possible candidates. The two who emerged as contestants in the Aug. 6 state primary are both current office-holders: school board member Patti Bounds and County Commissioner Michele Carringer.
The district covers a roughly goat-shaped swath of the county, from Fountain City north to Halls, Powell and Heiskell. Its voting is traditionally Republican, with Democrats doing better in the districts closer to the city. In 2018, Dunn easily defeated Democratic challenger Kate Trudell by a 70-30 percent margin.
Whoever wins the Republican primary next month will go on to face Democratic candidate Elizabeth Rowland in the Nov. 3 general election.
On paper, Bounds and Carringer have a lot in common: Both grew up in Knox County, graduated from local schools and attended the University of Tennessee. Both are grandmothers who love to show off their grandchildren — Bounds has photos of all 14 of hers on her campaign website, and Carringer has brought one of her granddaughters to several Commission meetings. And both have been active in local politics over the past decade.
They currently represent adjacent county districts that between them cover most of the 16th House District. Carringer’s 2nd District reaches from downtown through Fountain City; Bounds’ 7th District includes Halls and Powell.
But there are differences between them, too. Bounds, a retired teacher, said she wants to protect public education from what she sees as misguided state policies — including school vouchers, a signature cause of Dunn’s legislative career. Carringer speaks more broadly about wanting to continue Dunn’s conservative legacy.
Carringer is relying on Republican credentials from years of party activism. Bounds, unusually for a Republican candidate in recent years, is drawing a lot of support from current and former teachers.
Carringer opted not to seek re-election to Commission this year so she could run for the House seat. Bounds was elected to a second term on the school board in 2018, so she will remain on the board if she is not elected to the Legislature.
Patti Bounds: ‘Education Is My Passion’
Bounds’ first foray into electoral politics came in 2014. She was ready to retire as a kindergarten teacher after 23 years with the school system, and she was distressed at the direction she saw the school system taking. The incumbent school board representative for the 7th District, Kim Severance, was not seeking re-election.
“Some names were thrown into the ring, and I reacted to those and thought, ‘I have no idea about politics, but I know that I know what's right for kids and what's right for schools, and I can do this,’” she said. “And so we decided to run.”
She ended up unopposed in that race, and unopposed again when she ran for re-election in 2018, having served two years as school board chair.
“Unfortunately, this time I have an opponent,” she said with a laugh.
Bounds was born in Illinois where her father was serving in the Air Force, but she grew up in Knox County. She and her husband, Tommy, graduated from the former Holston High School. She graduated from UT in 1973 with an education degree and briefly went to work as a teacher before taking an extended break to raise their four children, all graduates of Powell High School. Bounds returned to teaching in 1990, spending 10 years at Powell Elementary and 13 at Brickey-McCloud.
The latter years of her time in the classroom came during the tumultuous tenure of former Superintendent Jim McIntyre, whose top-down decision-making and reliance on standardized testing grated on Bounds.
“I guess I woke up one day, it was like an epiphany,” she said. “I had just been in my classroom doing my job, trying to do it with excellence, making sure all my kids were able to read. I trusted that the people that were making the decisions that impacted my classroom are making the best decisions for children. And then I realized, they’re not.”
Bounds was part of a wave of new school board members in 2014 and 2016 — all former teachers — who essentially forced McIntyre’s resignation and ultimately hired current Superintendent Bob Thomas. She was board chair during the search process that selected Thomas, which she notes was done without hiring an expensive outside firm.
Other accomplishments she cites during her six years on the board include scrapping standardized testing for grades K-2; making the superintendent’s annual evaluation more like the process classroom teachers have to go through; and winning support for the construction of a new Adrian Burnett Elementary School and improvements to Powell middle and high schools.
At the state level, Bounds said she would continue her advocacy for public education — including her opposition to Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher programs and anything she said would take funding away from public schools.
“I do think that it is important to have somebody that has the knowledge about education, when 527 bills I think that were introduced last session dealt with education,” she said.
Like most of her school board colleagues, Bounds was fiercely opposed to Lee’s Education Savings Account bill, and she was bothered by the hardball political tactics former House Speaker Glen Casada employed to get it passed.
“I was just appalled at what was going on during that vote and the way that things were being conducted,” she said. “I just think the people of Tennessee deserve more than that.”
Recognizing that state government ecompasses more than schools, Bounds said she has met with representatives from the Department of Transportation to discuss infrastructure, talked about healthcare with state Sen. Richard Briggs and others, and generally tried to familiarize herself with the range of issues before the Legislature.
Bounds is a lifelong Republican. Her earliest political memories are of accompanying her grandmother as a little girl to meetings of the Knoxville Businesswomen’s Republican Club in the Broadway Shopping Center. “I was the only child there, so I got a lot of attention and I got to eat all the desserts and whipped cream I wanted,” she said.
She acknowledged that some of her positions on education put her at odds with Lee, the party’s standard-bearer in the state.
“I don’t blame Gov. Lee, he may deserve the blame, I don’t know,” Bounds said. “I would tend to blame the people who are advising Gov. Lee.” She added, “I’m a Republican, but I don’t always agree with Betsy DeVos.” DeVos is the U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump and an avowed supporter of school vouchers and privatization.
Apart from those disagreements, Bounds describes herself as a conventional conservative Republican. On her website, she says she is Christian, anti-abortion, a staunch supporter of gun rights, and in favor of low taxes.
“Republicans, at least in my sphere of reference, stand for growing the economy, supporting small businesses and supporting the Constitution,” she said. “Those are things that are important to me.”
But she makes no secret that her major focus in the Legislature would continue to be on the needs of students. “Education is my passion, and I think I have a lot to offer,” she said.
Michele Carringer: In Dunn’s Footsteps
Carringer is a lifelong Knoxvillian who still lives in Fountain City, where she grew up. Her daughter represented the fourth generation of her family to graduate from Central High School, where both Carringer and her husband, Mike, are also alumni.
“My parents were very much hardworking people, and husband’s family also,” she said. “They taught us both to always give back.”
Her daughter and husband both work as doctors at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. Carringer graduated from high school in 1980 and attended UT but left before completing her degree after she got married.
Her family is politically active and she has been around politics most of her life — her mother, Irene McCrary, is a former chair of the Knox County Republican Party. Carringer herself has served as president of the Fountain City/North Republican Club, vice president of the Volunteer Women's Republican Club and secretary of the Halls Republican Club, among other party positions.
“I’m very strong in the fact that we have the right to vote in our country,” she said. “Men and women lost their lives for it. I’m very strong about making a difference and helping people.”
She first joined County Commission in 2009 when she was appointed to finish the term of 7th District Commissioner Scott Moore, who was ousted from office by a judge for committing perjury during the open meetings trial that followed the Black Wednesday scandal. She served for two years until the makeup of County Commission changed in 2010 and the body was reduced from 19 to 11 members.
In the redistricting that followed the 2010 Census, Carringer’s home address was moved from the 7th District to the 2nd District, which extends south of Fountain City through most of North Knoxville. When the 2nd District Commission seat came open in 2016, Carringer ran and narrowly defeated Democrat Laura Kildare.
She is currently Commission vice chair and was ready to run for re-election — she had even picked up a nominating petition — before Dunn announced his retirement. Bounds had already declared, intending to challenge Dunn, and Carringer said she received phone calls from friends urging her to run.
“It so came out of the blue,” she said. “What really made the difference was when I met with my family before the holidays. They were all for it.”
On Commission, Carringer has rarely made waves, generally voting in support of major initiatives from former county Mayor Tim Burchett and current county Mayor Glenn Jacobs. She was for some time on the fence about Jacobs’ push to lease the Tennessee Valley Authority’s East Tower but eventually came around to supporting it like the rest of her colleagues.
Like Bounds, she claims some of the credit for getting the new Adrian Burnett Elementary School on the county capital plan. And she notes she stood up for residents of her district who were opposed to a proposed development on Beverly Road, which was ultimately withdrawn. She has also been a vocal supporter of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, including Commission’s move last month to take money from the general fund balance to give a $1,500 bonus to uniformed officers.
Like Bounds, she describes herself as a Christian and “very, very much pro-life.”
In the Legislature, she said she would first of all aim to carry on Dunn’s work. She has known and supported Dunn for years, and her daughter worked as a college intern in his office.
“I think Bill Dunn’s done a great job,” Carringer said. “My daughter said, ‘Bill Dunn’s the same person in Nashville and the same person when he comes home to Fountain City.’”
She is also favorably impressed by Lee. “No one could have predicted this pandemic that’s come through, and I think he’s doing the best he can,” she said. “I think Gov. Lee is really for the people, and he wants to do the best he can for them.”
Carringer said her priorities in Nashville would be to support better pay for teachers, more resources for schools — “We really need to concentrate on getting our students college- and career-ready” — and the ongoing efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.
She added, “I really feel like we need a mental hospital, and I think that can be done in the near future. We’ve got so many inmates up (in the county jail) that are really mental health patients, and they don’t need to be up there.”
On Lee’s beleaguered voucher bill — which was struck down as unconstitutional by a Nashville judge in May and is currently the subject of an appeal — Carringer draws a clear distinction between herself and Bounds. She said Lee’s Education Savings Accounts could give options to some low-income families.
“I’m for the parents being able to have a choice in deciding how to educate their children,” she said.